Gay puts Jacksonville on the map with his inmate rehabilitation program.
There he was, the great community organizer, a man whose politics of reform have built belief in better days.
Surely he'd get it. He'd understand that revolving prison doors cost more money than America should spend. He wouldn't just nod his head. He'd listen.
"What if I told you I could save you $30 billion in your first year of office?"
Kevin Gay, who put Jacksonville on the map with his inmate rehabilitation program, popped that question to President Barack Obama in June. He explained the savings would happen as part of a larger scheme to cut national recidivism in half.
On an otherwise sweltering day on the Northeast Florida campaign trail, when the media fixed on Obama's criticism of offshore oil drilling, Gay's largely undocumented chat helped give Jacksonville a voice in the Obama White House.
"I wanted to do something that would shock him a little bit," Gay said. "I said we've found a way to save that kind of money here in Jacksonville."
Shocked or not, Obama remembered the talk. He even mentioned Ready4Work, Gay's organization's employment arm, a little more than a week later while campaigning in Zanesville, Ohio.
Gay learned later that he'd earned a seat on the presidential transition team helping shape the president's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Council.
What work lies ahead isn't entirely clear. The council - a team of volunteer advisers for community programming - is in its infancy, albeit a mutation of a faith-based office hatched during the George W. Bush administration.
A call to the White House press office requesting more information about the council was not returned.
While campaigning, Obama dismissed the Bush version as "a photo op" and said he'd build the concept into a critical part of his presidency. His pick to head the effort, 26-year-old Pentecostal pastor and campaign strategist Joshua DuBois, was revealed just days ago. Gay said he's already been in several conference calls with DuBois.
In Jacksonville, a city known as Florida's murder capital, local officials say they're hopeful the inroads Gay has made in the Obama administration will boost the region's national profile and bring home federal assistance.
"He worked so hard. He earned everybody's respect. I could see why the president would be taken by him," said Charles "Skip" Cramer, executive director of Jacksonville Community Council Inc., a nonprofit think tank.
Gay is 50. He graduated from The Bolles School in 1976 and from the University of Florida in 1980.
President Bill Clinton applauded his work. President George W. Bush made Ready4Work a national model in 2002. Gay's name is well-known at City Hall, as well, and it's practically legendary in the region's nonprofit sector.
His primary business: Rebuilding lives. Through Ready4Work, he helps discharged inmates achieve the jobs they need to stay out of jail.
Through Operation New Hope, he is the hammer and paintbrush striving to freshen urban housing stock for new families and a stronger community.
The Rev. Davette Turk remembers a younger, more corporate-bound version of Gay - he was once on the path to a lucrative insurance career - coming into her office at All Saints Episcopal Church around a dozen or so years ago.
Gay said he remembered feeling a calling as a younger man, but wasn't sure how to translate it into his life's work. He remembered Turk asking, "When are you going to quit chasing that corporate buck?"
Turk said Gay seemed to be excited until he sat down. Then, as she put it, "The excitement drained out."
He was losing himself, he explained.
Turk suggested a drive through the Northside, which in retrospect became inspiration to rehabilitate housing.
Not long after, he found love in helping others.
"Jacksonville is a tale of two cities. He's not going to stop until the Northside and the Southside look like the same side," Turk said.
While marketing the Jacksonville Journey anti-crime plan to the City Council, Mayor John Peyton used Gay's organization as a prime example of what the city needed to expand.
"He's got a good track record, a strong board of directors. They're good stewards of their money and they have the results to prove it," the mayor said.
Gay said Ready4Work, which is about a decade old, has a 95 percent success rate and recently surpassed its 1,000th participant.
Statistics like that help reassure Turk that the region is in good hands. At 73, she reflects on a photograph she took with Gay while both were in Washington for Obama's inauguration.
"Here is the next generation," she said.
(Source : Jacksonville.com)